Mental challenges in climbing

Performance Anxiety and Body Image - this is not another one of ‘those’ posts

Apr 27, 2020 5:03:00 PM / by Naomi Hatto

Whilst I think it would be awesome if everyone did have a positive body image and was happy with their performances in the relevant areas I know this is a very personal thing so can’t be forced - I do think being positive and encouraging towards everyone irrespective of their outward appearance is the right, and nice, thing to do but I do want to talk a bit about the effect that this might have on people as well...I appreciate that this is likely to be quite controversial but it is something that I feel is worth mentioning - maybe because it’s something that is close to my heart but with that in mind I will do my best to keep perspective.


I don’t have a definition for performance anxiety, and when it comes to me I don’t really like giving things like that a name - it almost feels like it then has the option of becoming an excuse for why I’m not performing - I know everyone has bad days and they aren’t fun but I also don’t like qualifying excuses for my bad days. I often think for me it’s best to just accept that it was a bad day and hopefully tomorrow will be better (realistically I know that I can’t climb my hardest after a training session but I also want to have fun when climbing and the grade I’m climbing on a specific day shouldn’t matter to me - it does but I wish it didn’t).


I don’t think I suffer from performance anxiety, certainly not to an extent that it really affects my ability to do what I really enjoy doing - climbing, be that indoors or outdoors, sport or bouldering it’s my go to, I can get lost in it (usually) and just make a bad day better...that’s certainly how it feels again to me now, after a lot of work, like most I’ve had my low points - before the opening of the wall I loved climbing and called myself a climber but it wasn’t the be all and end all of my identity, then we opened a climbing wall. I became someone who was considered a ‘good’ climber; someone who our youth clubs (those who know me) ask if I’ve climbed ‘x’ yet, or have I got any suggestions for how to do ‘y’ move. On the one hand I think it’s really cool, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am but on the other I don’t really feel like I fit into the category of ‘strong’ or ‘good’ - I mean compared to some climbers I’m pretty weak and I don’t climb all that hard. I want to be better but I worry that if I have bad days or don’t feel like climbing for a week that I’m no longer really a climber because I just don’t know how to constantly maintain psyche. Also, living in Fort William but really loving sport climbing and bouldering, not winter and/or trad climbing - can I really call myself a climber, am I really part of that community or do I just aspire to be? Rationally I appreciate that this isn’t true and there’s more to being ‘a climber’ than pulling hard, being strong and climbing in the winter or climbing trad. It’s about the community and sharing what you love and encouraging others so that they too can be what they want to be, and along the way helping them to understand and appreciate the effort put into something rather than the success from doing something easy. That’s what I took away from my early experiences of climbing, indoors in an area where there really wasn’t much outdoor climbing on my doorstep, I think it’s part of why I’ve stuck with it for 20 odd years. At that indoor wall it didn’t matter whether the instructors, who became my friends, were capable of winning rounds of the BBCs or were new routing in Lofoten...they showed me how to push myself and love the problem solving and physicality of it all.


So...that’s me in a nutshell - what does this have to do with performance anxiety and body image I hear you ask? We all, in general, have a picture in our heads of what we look like, how good we are at things and how we want to improve, yes? 


So, what if, someone who you see as being ‘really good’ at something doesn’t see the same thing? What if you telling them, or other people in their hearing, that they’re really good makes them feel that as soon as they ‘perform’ (for want of a better word) they are going to let everyone down, because they aren’t (in their own heads) ‘really good’? I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone all of the time, nor am I suggesting that you should stop complimenting your friends and people who you think are doing well, I guess I’m maybe just suggesting that a compliment doesn’t always make someone feel good about themselves. 


We’re in a time where there is a lot of emphasis on having a positive body image and being positive about everything and that complimenting people can only be a good thing and I think that being kind to people no matter their physicality, shape, size or ability in whatever they are doing is a good thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that performance anxiety and body image issues can come in all shapes and sizes. I’m lucky in that I don’t really have serious body image issues but performance anxiety has caused plenty of meltdowns as well as stopping me from climbing intermittently, or led me to being uncomfortable climbing in a room where others are also climbing. I’ve never enjoyed being on a stage (except when aged about 4 and tap dancing - apparently I couldn’t wait to perform then!) and my wobbles have probably not really been severe enough for most people to notice but for me it’s been a big deal - I’m fortunate in that we have the keys to a climbing wall and I have a very understanding husband who will give me a belay at 6am just so that I can climb without being seen, without feeling like I have to perform - not everyone has that.


I wish I could offer insights into how best to treat everyone so that it’s always all ok and no one ends up upset, worried or stressed by someone who only had the best of intentions. So far I’ve tried really hard to compliment effort rather than achievement when I think it’s appropriate but who knows, I’m no psychologist and maybe that causes issues too..?


I do know that I have a friend with whom I’ve spoken about these issues, we share a couple of them, but that doesn’t stop my mouth from running away with me and telling her that she is good at ‘x’ and ‘of course that’s not true’. It’s hard, I’ve been brought up to try and do the right thing - I care about people and I try really hard to not upset them but it’s still a relatively new thing for me to see that sometimes saying the things that are meant to make people feel better about themselves can actually feel like extra pressure to perform.


I take my hat off to Jamie for writing ‘Taming the black dog’ , it’s never easy to talk about such personal stuff, and on a similar level I can get really into moving and climbing and forget everything and feel better, however there is another side to it and I think it’s good to be aware that whilst climbing has helped a lot of people, there are people for whom the sport has become (or will become in the future) a love-hate relationship with a bunch of anxieties added into the mix.


I’d really like to end on a positive note - we often get compliments as a community about how inclusive we are and how climbing can be a really personal thing whilst being done as part of a group of people, there are a tonne of studies out there about bouldering being great for mental health and charities that run sessions for disadvantaged youths to give them help improve their confidence - in climbing it is possible for everyone to succeed in their own way, whether that’s getting to the top, unlocking the first sequence to get yourself started or even being willing to walk through the door into a bouldering wall for the first time. Being able to see my own achievements for what they are for me, how far I’ve come and not compare myself with others is a way that I personally try to deal with my (for want of a better term) performance anxiety. 


As a person I’m pretty introverted and I think that’s possible why I tend to cringe when I have to tell someone about my capabilities (I’m ok being the go-to phrase) but then again, maybe that’s what has pushed me so hard to strive to be my own version of good and to be better, partly because I think I can be better and partly because I want to live up to what ‘good’ means to me...or maybe that’s just the perfectionist in me..?

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Naomi Hatto

Written by Naomi Hatto